The Glory (and Humor) of Literary Interpretation

As writers we’re always told not to worry about what others will think of our writing, yet we are constantly reminded to be concerned with how other people are going to interpret what we write. We clarify. We edit. We worry. We edit more, all in hopes of conveying exactly what we mean.

I’m no different. I work really hard to craft what comes out as closely to the feelings and intentions that birthed it. Sometimes words just fail. They don’t fit right, they don’t exactly mean what we want, or mean what we mean… And every writer knows that unless you really understand what you mean and have a great vocabulary to start with, a thesaurus will only take you so far.

When I start to get bound up in whether I’m conveying what I think I am, I remember something that happened when I worked in retail. A little girl of about five or six came into the store with her grandmother. I watched them come in, the little girl bright-eyed and skipping. They reemerged an hour or so later at the checkout. The little girl kept glancing longingly over at a huddle of balloons floating near the store’s front door. As she danced in place and whirled between looking up at her grandmother and the party at the door, the grandmother remained militantly focused on getting her items rung up and bagged without fuss. When they were finished and heading toward the door, the little girl was reluctant and stared at the floor. The grandmother goaded her on, but the little girl still dawdled. Finally the grandmother asked, “What do you want?” The girl pointed at a specific balloon hovering in the colorful mass. Plain as day I heard the grandmother say, “Now why in the world would you want a balloon with a picture of somebody’s tonsils on it?” and snatched the girl out the door.

I howled with laughter, though her point was valid. The grandmother looked at the Batman emblem and saw what she saw, which was likely something its creators never intended. What did the little girl see in the balloon? I have no idea. Maybe she knew it was the Batman symbol. Maybe she didn’t and just thought it was neat. Without doubt I’ve had readers project meanings, metaphors, and judgments into my writing that were nowhere on the horizon of my expression of them. Perception really is reality. I’m fine with harping grandmothers seeing tonsils in my writing, though I confess I’m elated when someone really gets it. And I’m just fine with little girls who may or may not get it, but are willing to assert appreciation, either way.

4 thoughts on “The Glory (and Humor) of Literary Interpretation

  1. Oh My Gosh! This is so wonderful…and must I say, hilarious too! But see, right here you did it! I know they say, show don’t tell, but really I go with telling the story exactly as we see it first, and jazz it up on the rewrite.

    WoW. This was great. And thanks for stopping by my blog. I now have to visit your blog more often.

  2. Lol! We can only control what we put down on the page, not what other people do with it. Though, if we run something through crit group a few times and everybody is seeing tonsils, and we wanted to send a different image, we might choose to rewrite.

  3. I’ve never thought that the Batman symbol resembled tonsils. Leave it to that grandmother to find a quirky new meaning. Maybe they should pass the caped crusader balloons out at dentist offices.

    You are right…as much as we are told to write what we know and not care what anyone thinks, we are given the mixed message to worry about the interpretation. I struggle with both concepts, but I think I’m slowly getting better. Terrific thought-provoking post.

  4. Enjoyed your lighthearted perspective of something we writers take sooo serioulsy – do our readers get it? I’ve come to realize that readers read what they want into what we write anyway – just as people hear what they want to hear. I’ve had readers come up with stuff that never entered my mind while I was writing my book. But that’s what makes it interesting, and enriching. It really is a two-way street.

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